Product Review – Macmillan IELTS Skills App

The app is divided into the sections of the exam

IELTS Skills is the award winning app from Macmillan, helping learners with skills and techniques necessary for achieving high scores in all four papers of the academic IELTS exam. The app goes into detail about what to expect in the exam, helps improve necessary skills and gives tips and guidance to help learners on the day they actually take the exam.

There is a free version of the app, with a limited amount of content for each of the four skills, and a full version priced at £3.99 that gives full content in all of the four skills. Alternatively, each skill can be purchased separately for £1.49.

The website doesn’t specify the level of learner being aimed at with this app, but based on the complexity of the language in the app it seems that it would be suitable for candidates already above the 6.0 mark.


Learners can rate their progress with Can Do statements

The main positive for this app is the high quality of the content. Each section of the app (Reading, Listening, Speaking, Writing) has a summary letting the learners know what to expect from that section, and then a ‘golden rules’ section giving tips and techniques to help learners in the exam. Each section is then broken down into sub sections, relating to the different subsections of the exam and the different subkills and techniques needed or suggested for tackling those sections. There is a huge amount of detail in these explanations and the exercises that the learners are asked to do relate well to the exam itself and so train learners for what to expect when actually sitting down to the IELTS exam. The subject matter depth and breadth is very impressive, and puts the app up there with a full IELTS coursebook in terms of content.

There are also some really nice features in terms of promoting learner autonomy. For example, at the end of each section there is a list of Can Do statements that ask the user to rate their own ability relating to the things that have been taught in that section. There is also a progress indicator, so that learners can see how much they have completed of a subsection, section or the entire app.

The app is very specific in how it helps learners and therefore has very obvious value for people taking the IELTS exam. The fact that the app can be bought as a bundle or for a specific section of the exam means that learners don’t need to spend more than necessary to get the value that they feel that they need most. And given the quality of the content, the app is solid value for money, especially in relation to the cost of taking the exam itself.

Watch a video of the examiner and then record a response

There are lots of opportunities to practice, check answers and monitor progress through the content. Plus some really nice features, such as learners being able to record themselves answering speaking questions, adding to the variety of the app in terms of interaction types.


The the main weakness with this app is the lack of consideration of the medium through which the content is delivered. There are literally pages and pages of dense text, requiring the user to scroll up and down through the different sections and then navigate backwards and forwards through obscure menu hierarchies as they try to negotiate all the material. In some cases the exercises require scrolling up and down from images to questions repeatedly in order to complete them.

There is also no way of the learner diagnosing which sections may be of more or less use to them, resulting in the load of content maybe seeming even more daunting. Even in the Can Do sections there is no suggested unit that would help with an area in which the learn deems themselves to be weak. So cutting through the noise to the area that would have the biggest impact on the learner becomes a challenge, and I imagine that many learners would stop short of getting the most out of the content available

Some tricky scrolling in places

Due to the format of the content and the large amount of metalanguage used, even in the section titles, it’s unlikely that a learner will be able to pick and choose which bits of the different sections of the course are most relevant unless they go through in a linear fashion and skip over the things that they find superfluous. Whilst this does encourage learners to deal with a variety of content, it seems to have missed an opportunity to present the information in a more personalised or piecemeal format.

From a design perspective, the user experience feels too similar throughout the app. There is no visual representation of the section you are in, or what is expected of the user in each. Should they be processing info here, or answering a question, or getting exam tips? Each page has the same informational hierarchy and a lack of clear signals for the user to latch onto in terms of knowing what is expected of them.

4 thoughts on “Product Review – Macmillan IELTS Skills App”

  1. I have several versions of this app and I’ve tried them in 121 adult sessions and in groups using an iPad and Apple TV. I am a bit disappointed as they are quite hard to work with. It seems to be a very detailed self-study app rather than a teaching one. It does make an effort to break down each section and teach sub-skills with lots of little exercises. Unfortunately, I never teach very long IELTS courses and my students want the essentials with some IELTS test practice too. Thus, I always end up using some other apps and sites.

    This could be much better if it felt more like an app and not just a book that has been transferred to an iPad. For instance, the speaking part does not take full advantage of the medium as you can see in the picture above. This ‘listen then record’ exercise has been around since the first IELTS apps. Some others analyse your speech, show your intonation, identify phonetic issues etc.

    The design could also be much better. As in the second picture, they have taken IELTS practice tests and recreated them on the app. The result is that it looks a bit dated. Some colours would be nice and some smooth and friendly exercises. 1 page activities would be preferred.

    If they are aiming at teachers, the app should be teacher friendly. If it’s for students, make all the instructions and tips easy to follow for potentially low students and motivating. The IELTS is hard for some and with so many online sites and free apps out there, one which goes into lots of detail about scanning and skimming etc, probably won’t sell as well as one which teaches the essentials quickly and effectively. However, on a 10/20 week class course that needs more than last minute prep, this could fill that gap.

    Just in case you are interested, student feedback was mixed. In my experience of teaching IELTS, students tend to want exams and exams. I do prefer working on skills and then tests but it can be an uphill battle.

    • Does anyone have any titles they’d recommend more for students working on IELTS on their own? I’m particularly looking for something I can recommend to students who are really too weak to be in my IELTS Advanced class and so need to do extra work outside class to catch up. (I don’t have a smartphone or tablet myself, so rely entirely on your recommendations…)

  2. TY for this – a nice/fair review!

    I have to admit I do get a bit worried when I heard people (aka TEACHers) talk about “TEACHing IELTS” (or TOEFL) – sorry Phil 😉

    IELTS or any major international testing tool is…in a nutshell, (just) an EXAM! The suggestion that we can TEACH an “exam” has always baffled me.

    I mean, we can TEACH a language point (beit a “lexicalised chunk” or a bit of plain grammar), a communication strategy, a wee bit of upskilling, perhaps…and if we are really lucky, these things might get LEARNed!

    But, TEACHing an exam (rather than helping LEARNers get more familiar with some “new” testing items – something that takes a few hours, in truth!)…sounds like EXAMocracy-speak to me…the type of thing that just kills EL LEARNing dead!

    I’m a fan of these types of apps exactly because they might (just might, just maybe) help us get rid of this type of “TESTucator terminology”, put exam-prep back in the hands of LEARNers (where it should always have stayed) and really make people (and TEACHers is “people” too) thunk about what really matters in the ELL classroom 😉



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